Actually, Jeter almost didn't make it to Opening Day. With one week left in spring training Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, acting on the advice of his "baseball people," wondered aloud if Jeter was ready and whether the club should trade for an established shortstop. Manager Joe Torre thought it was too late to make such a move. The Yankees stayed with Jeter, who rewarded them by hitting .314, including .350 after the All-Star break. Jeter is not polished defensively—he needs to improve his range moving to his left—but his 22 errors last year represented a huge improvement over the 56 he made in Class A in 1993 and was much better than the 47 charged to Reese in '41. "He weighed 158 pounds when we signed him," Michael says of Jeter, "and he's continued to get bigger and better every year."
Gonzalez is another friend of Rodriguez's—they played high school ball in Miami and in the off-season go out together in search of sailfish—who brings sock to shortstop. The 6-foot Gonzalez hit the weight room after last season and added nine pounds, bulking up to 195. "My goal this year is to double my numbers in home runs and stolen bases ," he says.
The 6'1" Renteria added 10 pounds over the winter and is now 185, though he sheepishly admits to "the McDonald's diet." According to Marlins Latin American scouting director Al Avila, "Renteria is the type of guy who's going to hit .300 year-in and year-out while getting to the point where he should hit 10 to 15 home runs a year." On defense Renteria is so smooth that he makes difficult plays look routine. Only Gonzalez, Bordick and Milwaukee's Jose Valentin gobbled more balls per nine innings last year. "Back home I am like Michael Jordan is here," says Renteria, who was runner-up to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Todd Hollandsworth for National League Rookie of the Year. "The only games on television in Colombia are Marlins games."
The smallish Ordonez (5'9", 159 pounds), who defected from Cuba in 1993, may not be a hero in his homeland, but he's a favorite of highlight-tape editors across America's television newsrooms. His best glovework is equal to that of Ozzie Smith's. Trouble is, Ordonez also made 27 errors last year and had a lowly .289 on-base percentage. "Rey has an awful lot to learn about offensive play," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "He definitely made too many errors, but most of them came from not being aware of the situation, like the speed of the runner. If it were tennis, he'd have a lot of unforced errors."
Rodriguez, meanwhile, plays the position as if he studied his whole life for it. He is part of America's cable-ready generation, a satellite-fired society bombarded with games. Since he was 11 years old, Rodriguez has watched hundreds of baseball games with a critical eye, absorbing tendencies and habits of players. "When I got to the big leagues," he says, "no one had to tell me that Cal Ripken was a pull hitter or what Darryl Strawberry did with two strikes. My knowledge shortened the learning curve for me, big time."
The next great baseball hero is so young that he cannot remember Ripken playing in the 1983 World Series. "The first one I clearly remember is '84: Tigers-Padres," Rodriguez says. He is so young that only recently did he move out of his mom's house. "I had to," he says. "I didn't fit in my bedroom anymore. I had clothes hanging out of closets and stuff hanging out of windows."
It is past midnight, and Rodriguez, still clad in his basketball clothes, is sitting in the backyard of his new Miami home, an abundance of stars above him. It is a rare moment of repose. In his last week before spring training, Rodriguez will attend three awards dinners (none, alas, at which he will meet Cindy); chat up the folks at GQ about a photo spread and a Manhattan advertising firm about a milk ad campaign; do two photo shoots for national magazines and visit Ripken at his house in Maryland.
Rodriguez's home is not yet fully furnished, but displayed prominently in the foyer is a basketball autographed by another of his heroes, Magic Johnson, who redefined point guard the way Rodriguez is revolutionizing shortstop. Rodriguez grew up watching Magic and the other great basketball stars—Jordan, Bird and Barkley—enthusiastically sell their sport. Baseball stars are infamous for shirking such ambassadorship, but Rodriguez is equipped to make a difference. Is it fair to ask someone four years removed from high school to be a flag bearer? Did Pee Wee and Scooter have to worry about endorsement strategies, charitable foundations and media training while learning pitchers' tendencies and improving their footwork around the bag?
"I believe the game is just taking off," Rodriguez says, "and maybe as a group we young shortstops can help. The opportunity is there for us. Baseball always comes first, though. You're in trouble the minute you start thinking you're a media strategist or marketing guy and not a baseball player.
"I want to get better. I love it when people say that last season was a career year for me, that I can't do it again. I love to hear people say that. That's a challenge to me, a major challenge."